‘Literacy is not just about words’: Music director responds to potential cuts by MPS

Students hold a MPS Bands banner with instruments behind them.
Members of the Minneapolis Southwest High School perform at the Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Southwest High School

Updated 11:19 a.m.

As Minneapolis Public Schools joins other districts in facing steep budget shortfalls, which programs the districts reduce or cut — and by how much — are top of mind for educators.

One of the programs on Minneapolis’ potential chopping block is fifth grade band and orchestra, which affects every fifth grader in the district. Reid Wixson, director of bands and orchestras at Minneapolis Southwest High School, helped create the universal music program about five years ago because he and his colleagues noticed elementary band and orchestra weren’t equitable across the district.

“Our massive goal was to make sure that we really got rid of the opportunity gap,” he told MPR News Friday.

A man poses for a photo with a drum and screen behind him.
Reid Wixson, director of bands and orchestras at Minneapolis Southwest High School, helped create the universal music program about five years ago.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Southwest High School

Wixson is also a parent to second and fifth graders in the district, at Barton Elementary School. He believes small group instruction in fifth grade is an ideal starting point for music education as students’ large and fine motor skills are growing.

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“We're hitting all the marks here. As instrumental musicians, we're developing literacy skills constantly, we're teaching students how to not just read music on the paper, but also read the room, listening,” Wixson said. “Literacy is not just about words.” Wixson also pointed to data that show strong correlations between school music programs and higher graduation rates.

“When we looked at our opportunity to make reductions, we didn’t eliminate important programming for students to focus on math, literacy, or any of those core academic areas,” new Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams told MPR News last month.

The district’s $110 million deficit is partially due to declining enrollment and the end of federal COVID-related funding. The fifth grade band and orchestra program is paid for through the district’s central office instead of discretionary funding at each school, which Wixson says leveled the playing field.

“And as students matriculate up … literally every student in the district is affected,” said Wixson. “So it’s hard to see a program that affects the entire district on the chopping block for such a small cost, really. It's $1.5 million to fund about 15 full-time teachers to run the program.”

Money could potentially come from outside the school, but Wixson worries that would reinstate the inequities in music access that drove him to create the universal program in the first place.

Still, whether the district will follow through on this cut or other proposed reductions won’t become clear until the board votes on the budget on June 18.

MPS offered this statement to MPR News specifically in regard to the fifth grade band and orchestra program:

“The District funding of the 5th grade instrumental music is one of many proposed cuts on the table right now. We are discontinuing centralized support of 5th grade instrumental music, but students will have the opportunity to participate in music programming in grades 6 - 12. Elementary schools also have the option to continue funding this program through their discretionary funds or they can also use their specialist allocation.”

Correction (April 1, 2024): An earlier version of this story misspelled Reid Wixson’s name. The story has been updated.